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the Gekko Files: Previewing California Golden Bears Football in 2018

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Cal fans eye the postseason in Year 2 of the Wilcox rebuild.

NCAA Football: California at UCLA Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

My long-running love affair with the Cal football program (more a figment in the collective imagination of my readers than an objective fact in evidence) notwithstanding, year two in the Justin Wilcox era is one that brings with it intrigue. The Golden Bears experienced a complete overhaul in both style of play and culture last season. The cotton candy-soft Bears from 2016 were replaced with a gritty, gutty team that had few playmakers but a lot of heart.

Wilcox and his veteran staff look to build on the narrow miss of bowl eligibility that they achieved last year with an eye towards the postseason in 2018. To get there, a boatload of questions need to be answered:

  • Where will the offense come from?
  • Who should the quarterback be?
  • How will opposing rushing attacks be stymied?
  • Is there enough depth to fight off the attrition that comes with a long season?

The Bears are an interesting subject this offseason. Though they are just one year into the Wilcox regime, it almost feels like they have arrived at a crossroads. Will this team continue down the path of rebuilding that Wilcox has started them on or was last season’s signal of cultural overhaul a mirage fueled by the will of a few now-graduated seniors and the programmatic adrenaline that comes with a coaching change?

Who knows? This guy, that’s who.

We’ve got some work to do. Let’s open the Gekko File on Cal.

Cal Offense

Cal Offensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
OL experience explosive plays WR Vic Wharton WR Taariq Johnson (RFr)
QB competition RB depth OL Patrick Mekari QB Chase Garbers (RFr)
short passing game RB Patrick Laird RB Biaggio Ali Walsh (RFr)

Let’s call a spade a spade, shall we? Cal’s offense was not good last season. In fact, it is hard to find in the history of the PAC 12 such a rapid decline in productivity from a program that just two years ago boasted so proudly about its ability to #Drop50 in any given game to one that went a quarter of the season without even topping 30 a single time.

California v UCLA
Patrick Laird is going to have run tough again for Cal in 2018.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

That offensive challenge could steepen in 2018 given what we now know:

That’s a lot to process. The good news is that there is much left on the roster to work with. Of particular note is the Bears’ offensive line.

Cal returns every single offensive lineman who started a game a year ago including stud LT Patrick Mekari and reliable OC Addison Ooms. The left side of the line is all seniors while the right side features two sophomores who played extensively as freshmen. Collectively, the line was surprisingly effective in run blocking and helping to keep Cal ahead of the chains. However, their inexperience and lack of athleticism was an inhibitor in pass blocking. As a result, Cal ran the ball more than OC Beau Baldwin probably preferred - 56% on standard downs. Whether or not pass blocking can improve this year remains to be seen.

Generating big plays will be a point of emphasis for Baldwin. Last season, the Bears averaged 6.7 yards per attempt - 98th in the nation. Even without Robertson or Stovall, I suspect most Bear fans believe that they have the horses to turn that around. The Bears return 123 catches, 1659 yards, and 9 TDs between their two stars Vic Wharton and Kanawai Noa. Both are remarkably sure-handed and, Noa in particular, have the ability to work the middle of the field. The thing is that neither is blessed with size or separating speed. To generate more big plays, someone else is going to have to step up.

Cal has some other experienced receivers who could step into the breach. 6’1” Jordan Duncan is an interesting prospect who just hasn’t yet seen enough of the field. Brandon Singleton is a rich man’s Jordan Chin who has some length and a great quickness, but still needs to get stronger.

Most likely, Cal is going to have to rely on someone new to bear the playmaker mantle. The early candidates to watch are Michigan transfer Maurice Ways and redshirt freshman Taariq Johnson. Ways is a big (not fast) grad transfer who will present a bigger target than any other outside receiver but who, while at Michigan, struggled to see the field. Johnson is an early breakout candidate who has size (6’2”, 220 lbs) and speed. He had a great spring and will certainly get a chance to play a big role for Cal this season.

Tight end and fullback are positions once again in the Cal offense. The Bears will welcome the return of tight end Ray Hudson from injury. The sixth-year senior is a reliable player and will have a role on the team. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention fan favorite Malik McMorris, the 290-pound H-back who plays both track and football for Cal. His athleticism is such that he can’t be ignored as just a novelty on the field.

Ross Bowers remains, for now, the projected starting QB. It is questionable, though, as to whether or not he can hold on to that role. I think most people will acknowledge that Bowers embodies the kind of attitude that Wilcox and Baldwin are trying to instill. He plays hard.

But the truth is that Bowers has limitations. He’s not especially mobile, has only average accuracy, and is not gifted with a booming arm. He’ll be challenged this fall by last year’s backup Chase Forrest, South Carolina transfer Brandon McIlwain, and redshirt freshman Chase Garbers. McIlwain is the most interesting prospect from an all-around athleticism standpoint while Garbers looks like a great pro-style prospect. If one of those two don’t unseat Bowers, I would be mildly surprised. Either way, QB is a major question mark for former UW star Marques Tuiasosopo to work out.

Fortunately, Cal still has the services of Patrick Laird to lean on. The former walk-on was a revelation at RB a year ago posting 1,127 yards and 8 TDs. He’s physically strong and mentally tough, even if he lacks ideal breakaway speed. There isn’t any depth behind him (another reason I think that McIlwain may win the QB job), so Cal may have no choice but to alter the offense with more short passing to help stay ahead of the chains. True freshman Chris Brown, Jr and Johnny Adams, Jr may both get a chance to compete with redshirt freshman Biaggio Ali Walsh to earn a part of the RB rotation.

Cal Defense

Cal Defensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
big play prevention rush defense LB Jordan Kunaszyk LB Colt Doughty (Txfr)
interior line depth linebacker depth DL Chris Palmer DL Lone Toailoa (Txfr)
red zone defense LB Aaron Funches DL Siulagisipai Fuimaono (RFr)

If the 2017 offense was a case study in unmitigated decline, then the defense was surely a case study of a shockingly robust one-season turnaround. Justin Wilcox took a page out of his UW defensive coordinator book in turning that defense around. By focusing specifically on big play prevention and red zone defense, Wilcox was able to get a defense made up of mostly the same talent from the season prior and make it a respectable unit.

But can he do it again?

Cal is still largely comprised of the same defensive talent that was originally assembled by Sonny Dykes. The only thing really new is that they are now missing several high-impact seniors from last year including DL James Looney, LB Devante Downs, CB Darius Allensworth, DL Tony Mekari and LB Raymond Davison.

That is a ton of leadership to replace for a program that has significant holes at every level.

California v Washington State
Jaylinn Hawkins is part of an impressive youth movement in the Cal secondary.
Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

Starting with the D-Line, the best you can say is that some size and physicality is beginning to develop there. The leader of the group is Luc Bequette, a 300-pounder who can play NG and 3T. Senior Chris Palmer, a 330-lb NG, will be his partner in trying to contain opposing rushing attacks and keeping linebackers clean to pursue ball carriers. There are a couple of other bodies that can rotate inside as well. Redshirt freshman Siulagisipai Fuimaono is an interesting prospect who we should start hearing about soon. You will also want to keep an eye on juco transfer DL Lone Toailoa.

There isn’t much of a pass rush. Rush LB Alex Funches (4 sacks) is far and away their best option, but he is inconsistent. Wilcox, I’m sure, is hoping that Funches can get some help from one of his young defensive ends. Sophomores Tevin Paul (6’5” 265) and Chinedu Udeogu (6’4” 265) are the best candidates to watch out for.

Any kind of pass rush would really help out a secondary that is starting to emerge as a bright spot. Last season, DC Tim DeRuyter got amazing production out of a group that included two sophomores (S Jaylinn Hawkins and S Ashtyn Davis) and two freshmen (CB Camryn Bynum and Elijah Hicks). Along with veterans Quentin Tartabull and Trey Turner, there is a lot to like here.

I’m particularly excited about the Bynum and Hawkins combination. Bynum plays bigger than his size and looks like he has a knack for ball hawking (8 PBUs in 2017). Hawkins, a former receiver, is a bigger safety (6’2”) who last year demonstrated all the ball skills you’d hope a former receiver would bring to the table and who was also far more effective in run support than I think anybody could have predicted. These guys are the core of a good unit that is really building out depth.

The linebacking situation is the one looming challenge that sits out there for DeRuyter and Wilcox. The impact of the losses of Davison and Downs cannot be overstated. Senior Jordan Kunaszyk is back at the MIKE - and he is a really, really solid middle backer. There are also several players—junior Gerran Brown, senior Derron Brown, junior Evan Weaver—who have experience but haven’t really taken off.

If some of those guys don’t step up, Cal will have to rely on some newer players. Cameron Goode, a sophomore OLB, had some really good moments as a freshman and should become a bigger piece of the puzzle this year. I’m also interested to see what comes from a pair of relative newcomers. Russ Ude is a DL/OLB that has bounced around positions his first two years as he has grown into his frame. Colt Doughty is an ILB juco transfer who has earned some buzz around the program.

One Breakout Player

WR Taariq Johnson

If McIlwain wins the job, then he’ll become the breakout player to watch. But that QB situation is in such flux, it is hard to make that call at this point in the offseason.

So I’m going to turn my attention to Johnson. Cal is in desperate need of a player who can stretch the field the way Beau Baldwin likes to. Johnson is clearly the best option to complement Noa and Wharton in that offense. He has the size and the athleticism to create open opportunities for himself. Plus, he has a full year in the Baldwin system.

If all goes well, Johnson should be able to generate four to six scores and a YPC average of 14 or more yards. If he could do that, I could really see the opportunities open up for the other two receivers.

Projecting Cal

The big debate among those that follow the PAC 12 is whether or not Cal is ready to step into that middle tier of the conference after one year with Justin Wilcox rebuilding completed. Honestly, it’s hard for me to see that.

The lack of depth and talent offensively seems to be a major constraint. It is also difficult to get excited about the QB depth until we see how the fall competition shakes out. Defensively, it is hard to ignore the fact that Cal still has significant challenges with their pass rush and in preventing opponents from playing ahead of the sticks.

I do think that the things that made Cal good a year ago—ball control and big play prevention on D—should be strengths again this year. Thus, a step backwards isn’t really something that I worry about even in light of the loss of those defensive seniors. The real question is whether or not the new playmakers on either side of the ball are ready to carry to the team to the next level.

I’m not there yet.

That’s not to say I don’t see Cal becoming a bowl-eligible team in 2018. Their out-of-conference starts with two tossup games: vs North Carolina and at BYU. If they get one of those, they have a decent probability of going bowling. If they win both, I would bet on it.

The in-conference schedule is a little more challenging. Their misses are ASU and Utah—not too bad—and they have five conference games at home. However, four of their last five are UW, @ WSU, @USC, and Stanford before closing vs Colorado. They also have their one bye week before PAC 12 play begins.

Brutal.

Cal is a team on the rise, but they might need one more year of development before Wilcox can get them to the postseason. I’m looking at another five-win campaign for the Bears with a puncher’s chance at six if they can go undefeated in their out-of-conference schedule.